Baddha - an extract
Anyone tuning into BBC2 on Sunday evenings may have enjoyed Sue Perkins’ adventures as she journeys the length of the Mekong River.
Elson Quick’s book Baddha also features a voyage in this beautiful corner of Asia; its protagonist embarks on a quest to recreate a moment of enlightenment which he experienced in a Burmese monastery.
His journey takes him around the countries of the region – Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand – where he has wild adventures. He contemplates his deep relationship with a lovely but enigmatic ladyboy and also the connection with his guide, a mysterious ‘Old Man’. The book is both a superb alternative handbook for the region and a wonderful exposition of contemporary Buddhism. Here Quick describes the encounter that sparked his unorthodox quest…
We nod at some monks hanging out their laundry, the long red robes like banners against the green foliage, and go up the steps to the temple hall, spacious, calm, shabby. We kick off our shoes at the door, me thinking, these over-designed North Face clown strollers costing a year’s salary for an average Burmese.
Inside we’re immediately directed to pay respects to the Buddha figure on the left wall, so we both kneel (like women – neither of us limber enough for the lotus) and contemplate the gilded Buddha figure, surrounded by the usual bewildering array of miscellaneous religious paraphernalia, flowers, framed photographs of scary monks, and a life-size shiny painted statue of a sitting monk, looking incongruously hip in real Elvis sunglasses. We’ve done this ritual before, at the Shwedagon and other temples. You’re just quiet and respectful of the place for a while. I don’t pray to Buddha, petition him for good luck, a wife, a job, a winning lottery ticket, whatever. Prayer isn’t for me, and it’s not for Buddha, by his request. So I quiet my monkey mind with a simple circus trick you can try at home. Use the eyes to take in the entire field of vision, without focusing at the center. Not going all mad-eyed or acting foolish, just being aware of everything within the perimeter of vision – right up to its blurred limit – without that bulls-eye target thing happening, the focus that gets the mind reacting like the opinionated bore it is. Flatten that habitual cone of focus into a field of vision. The ancient adepts had a secret word for this mystic technique: gazing. You’re in this bubble, listening to things floating through, and it lasts as long as you don’t follow any of them individually, which you have to, eventually. You can get lost for a while, and then you lose it, and the eye, that tyrant of the head, bullies your mind into thinking about some crap or other, Elvis sunglasses, whatever.
The monk leads us across the hall to where the Abbot sits on his Abbot chair, and we bow and kneel, and I’m taking him in, this smiling little old guy with the big horn-rimmed spectacles, a bandaid over one hinge, one grubbily bandaged foot up on a cushioned stool, and he’s folding a newspaper into his lap, the sports pages, there’s a picture of Wayne Rooney, a British Premier League soccer player, across the fold. Out here, everyone knows Wen Looney and Da-Wid Bekkum, enormously revered men. Nu Win sits off to one side. He’ll translate, as the Abbot has no English (and bien sur, no French, a continuously amusing source of irritation in South East Asia for Frog, who still believes in Indo-Chine, the Golden Era of French cultural benevolence). Frog sits nearer the Abbot than me, and I can tell the Abbot’s taken with this handsome, bright and smiling visitor. The Abbot, through Nu Win, asks him a lot of questions. Asians generally want to know how old you are, about your family, how many brothers and sisters, how old they are, that kind of thing. So Frog twinkles winningly, answering the Abbot’s lengthy questionnaire. My legs are getting stiff, and I’m a little jealous of, and/or annoyed by, the attention my friend’s getting, but I’m used to it. It’s the same in whorehouses.
So the Abbot, eventually, turns to me, asks my name, a question about my family, and then says, what was in your mind when you were in front of the Buddha? I’m surprised, don’t really have an answer, but say something that sounds pretentious to me as I say it, about being a writer, too many words, and trying to stop the words for a while, empty my head.
But something strange is happening, like I’m catching up with something I was too slow to see just a fraction of a second ago, or the shockwaves of a depth charge have just reached me. I don’t know what’s happened, what’s happening, but I do know the Abbot’s question is happening it. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like a question any more, more like a bottle-opener flipping off the top of my head. This seems banal and meaningless and fake typed out in front of me now, but I know I’ll never describe it better (or worse), so it’ll have to stand.
The Abbot is telling me he has a little meditation that will help me empty my head, and he touches the tip of his nose like he’s smelling a pinch of spice. Breathe in, think of the breath here, at the nose, where it comes in . . . out, at the end of the nose, put your mind here . . .
Our audience is over, and we’re led out, me wiping my eyes, probably watering from the light. Nu Win stays on a couple of minutes, catches up with us at the car. I’m blowing out my cheeks with heavy sighs for no apparent reason, running my hand back through my hair, Frog asking if I’m okay, the goodhearted guy that he is. Yeah, I say. Oh yes.
In the cab, Nu Win looks at me – the Abbot says you have a good mind. Wow! Also, I’m preening myself that the Abbot asked me the cosmic stuff, and used Frog for the census-taking. I am the Prom Queen. I nudge Frog in the ribs. He didn’t say you had a good mind, merde-for-brains, he said me. Moi. Bite the big one, pretty boy! Frog does a face-palm. Nu Win folds into an effortless lotus position in his driver’s seat, shows us how he meditates, the breathing, inside, outside . . . inside, outside. And the sudden impact of his words – inside, outside – hits me like the undertow of the tide that lifted me back in the Abbot’s hall. I’d heard them, under radically different circumstances, breathed in my ear only a couple of days before . . .
Baddha by Elson Quick is published by Cutting Edge Press, and is available on Amazon.
Alternatively, you can enter the giveaway on Goodreads for your chance to win one of FIFTY free copies.